COVID-19 HAS led to many innovations. In America one has been the drive-in political rally. On December 5th the two Democratic Senate candidates in Georgia, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, held one such event in Rockdale County, a fast-growing suburb of Atlanta where Joe Biden won almost 70% of the vote. Most of those attending listened to the speeches from their cars, honking enthusiastically rather than clapping. Despite the protection of their windscreens, almost everyone in the multiracial crowd wore masks. The candidates discussed health care, jobs, justice and, of course, what to do about the virus.
Republicans have not embraced this innovation. Four days later David Perdue, Mr Ossoff’s Republican opponent, held his event in Hartwell, the seat of a small rural county on the South Carolina border where Donald Trump won almost 75% of the vote. Mr Perdue’s rally was indoors, and although most of the crowd was elderly and covid-19 has ravaged the county, few wore masks. The crowd, which was entirely white, sat quietly as Mr Perdue warned that he was the bulwark against Democrats controlling government and implementing a “socialist agenda” that included “open borders” and “defund[ing] the police”.
In November, Mr Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia since 1992. On December 14th, after a month of ever more ludicrous lawsuits by Mr Trump’s allies, the electoral college confirmed Mr Biden’s victory nationwide. But his ability to govern effectively hinges on the state’s two Senate seats. Both are up for grabs on January 5th in two run-off elections, which Georgia holds when no candidate reaches 50% in the first round. If the Democrats can win both, they will have 50 Senate seats—enough, with the vice-president as the tie-breaker, to hold a majority.
In November Mr Perdue, first elected to the Senate six years ago, fell 0.3% short, but still finished nearly two points ahead of Mr Ossoff. In the other race—a special election to fill two years remaining in the term of Johnny Isakson, who retired for health reasons—Mr Warnock finished top of a crowded pack, but with just 32.9%. He faces Kelly Loeffler, appointed by Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, in December 2019, who came top out of six Republicans. Early voting began on December 14th.
In both races, one candidate is clearly stronger. In the main election Mr Perdue has the advantages of incumbency, staunch loyalty to Mr Trump, a folksy manner and a famous name—his cousin Sonny was Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He is the only one of the four candidates who has ever won a general election. Mr Ossoff is a rousing speaker, but he often sounds like a Barack Obama impersonator. He runs a media firm and, at the age of just 30, ran unsuccessfully for Congress three years ago.
In the special election, by contrast, it is Mr Warnock who has the more compelling story. Brought up in public housing in Savannah, he earned a doctorate in theology, and in 2005 became the youngest-ever senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King junior and senior preached. Decades in the pulpit have made him practised on the stump, whereas his opponent, Ms Loeffler, is awkward, robotic even. She has spent the campaign attacking Mr Warnock as a “radical liberal” (a phrase she repeated at least a dozen times during a debate on December 6th).
Polls show that both races are tight. But Democrats like their chances. Atlanta and its surrounding area have been growing—thanks in part to migration, particularly of African-American professionals, from other parts of America—as Georgia’s more conservative rural population has declined. Activists led by Stacey Abrams, the former state House minority leader, have spent the past decade registering young and non-white voters.
And the Republicans are at each other’s throats. Mr Trump reckons Mr Kemp is a “fool” who let the election be stolen. Ms Loeffler and Mr Perdue have called on the Republican secretary of state to resign, apparently for not throwing out the vote. Two hard-right lawyers, Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, have been urging Trump supporters not to “vote in another rigged election” on “another machine made by China”. If some of Mr Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters stay away, it will hurt Mr Perdue’s and Ms Loeffler’s chances.
The two also face scandals of their own. Both have been investigated by the Justice Department over allegations that they profited from insider information gleaned from congressional briefings (neither was charged and both deny wrongdoing).
Yet it may not be enough for the Democrats. Republicans rarely lose run-off races, because Democrats are less likely to turn out in non-presidential elections than Republicans. Though he failed to break 50%, Mr Perdue got a slightly higher share of the vote than Mr Trump in November. The combined share of the Republicans in Ms Loeffler’s race was only slightly lower. Messrs Ossoff and Warnock have been pitching their victories as essential to Mr Biden’s success. But that will succeed only if a critical mass of the suburban voters who propelled Mr Biden to victory are now reliable Democrats who want to see his agenda enacted, rather than Republicans who voted against Mr Trump but would prefer divided government.
As well as control of the Senate, the outcome may determine Mr Trump’s status in the Republican Party. Both Republicans have stuck fast to the president despite his loss, and in defiance of the state’s other elected Republican officials. If they win, it will show the enduring appeal of Trumpism to Republican voters. A win for two unabashedly progressive Democrats, however—particularly if Republicans cannot win back some suburban voters—will show Trumpism’s limits and usher its progenitor out of office, having lost and endorsed a pair of losers. Motivation, then, for both parties. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “The decider”